By Jeffrey Tucker, PhD
“Speculative Visions” is a title rich with denotative and connotative meanings covering the scope of this issue of (In)Visible Culture and of Cultural Studies more generally. It is a formulation that parallels “speculative fiction,” an umbrella term for writing that addresses any of a number of topics–augmentations of the human body, journeys through space and time, the wonder and warnings attached to technological developments, utopias and dystopias, alien encounters, and more; it also covers a range of genres–e.g. science fiction, fantasy, and horror–belonging to what the late Tzvetan Todorov called The Fantastic.1 It is in this latter sense particularly that such coverage is warranted; look closely at the content, production, or reception of “genre” literature or film and you will see boundaries a-blurring. Horror film director John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) is based on the novella “Who Goes There?” (1938) by legendary science fiction editor and writer John W. Campbell, Jr. Pulp science fiction pioneer Hugo Gernsback was an influence on DC Comics impresario Julius Schwartz. And it is not unusual for science fiction fans to enjoy fantasy or horror; the genres often share creators and publishers or studios as well.
Despite valid usages of this sort, “speculative fiction” is often invoked to counter the stigma attached to science fiction and other paraliterary genres and media. In The Metamorphoses of Science Fiction (1979), Darko Suvin describes paraliterature as “the popular, ‘low,’ or plebeian literary production of various times, particularly since the Industrial Revolution.”2 As Suvin’s definition suggests, the speculative genres have often found expression in popular media, including mass media accessible to children and the lower and working classes, hence their sub-cultural status. This association has been furthered by matters of both production and content. In The Comic Book History of Comics (2012), writer Fred Van Lente and artist Ryan Dunlavey suggest that film is often considered “art” in part because auteur theory identifies “a personal, individual entity” behind its creation as with a painting or novel, whereas comics, which is really no more collaborative but is perhaps more conspicuously so, “cannot be art and (is) something lesser.”3 Scott McCloud makes a related observation in Understanding Comics (1993): “Traditional thinking has long held that truly great works of art and literature are only possible when the two are kept at arm’s length,” McCloud explains, “words and pictures together are considered, at best, a diversion for the masses, at worst a product of crass commercialism.”4
There are tradeoffs, however, to deploying “Speculative Fiction” to disarticulate its signified from stereotypes of mass-produced pulp culture and nerdy fanboys. For starters, the difference between science fiction and speculative fiction–or, for example, “graphic novel” and “comics”–often dissipates when fundamental matters of form, content, and technique are considered. Moreover, the histories specific to individual genres and media can get lost in the terminological shuffle. And in the 21st Century, there really should not be any need for this kind of fancy footwork. With seemingly constant developments in data science, telecommunications, and molecular biology (to name a few), our world is becoming more science fiction-like every day. Hollywood is flooding theaters with feature films of varying quality, presumably making someone a lot of money, based on original media in science fiction, fantasy, or superhero comics. When the most popular show on television is Game of Thrones and one of the most anticipated, or at least most hyped, films of this year is Blade Runner: 2049, it is clear that what was once nerdy is now cool (if only because the nerds are now in positions of power in the culture industry and/or have disposable income to spend on new iterations of content they enjoyed in the past). More to the point, for years now, scholars have been trained to interrogate the distinction between “high” and “low” culture and to understand that popular culture matters socially, politically, ideologically, economically. To paraphrase Terry Eagleton, the critical apparatuses applied to John Milton can also be applied to Bob Dylan5 (a fact not lost on last year’s Nobel Prize committee), or to bring it up-to-date, we need not be surprised to see allusions to Roland Barthes’s S/Z only pages away from allusions to Jay-Z. And these “speculative” fields are the sites of some of today’s most recent creative and critical work. “Afrofuturism,” for example, identifies science fiction and fantasy-related music (e.g. Sun Ra), writing (Octavia E. Butler), visual art (Wangechi Mutu), and more from across the histories of people of African descent. Science fiction and utopianism are at the heart of recent works by Marxist scholar Fredric Jameson: Archaeologies of the Future (2005) and An American Utopia (2016). Recent anthologies have highlighted inroads by women writers (Pamela Sargent’s Women of Wonder volumes (1995)), visual artists (Cathy Fenner and Lauren Panepinto’s 2015 volume of the same name), and feminist scholars (editor Marleen S. Barr’s Future Females (1981) and Afro-Future Females (2008)) have celebrated interventions into what had been a male-dominated field. Feminism encountered a vital corrective in the form of Donna Haraway’s “A Cyborg Manifesto” (1984), which demonstrated how both its titular metaphor and the cultural field from which it was borrowed are deconstructive and anti-“nature.” In a similar move, science fiction author and critic Samuel R. Delany notes that the paraliterary is that against which a normative category like “literature” defines itself: “Just as (discursively) homosexuality exists largely to delimit heterosexuality and to lend it a false sense of definition,” Delany explains, “paraliterature exists to delimit literature and provide it with an equally false sense of itself.”6 In short, any Humanities scholar who does not take the “speculative” seriously needs to take a second look.
And looking is what “Speculative Visions” is all about, not only in terms of how the pertinent objects of study are perceived, but also in terms of looking into–imagining, guessing at–the future, to “speculate” about what is to come. Delany identifies the future as a “paraspace,” where the rules of nature and/or those constructed by human beings do not necessarily apply.7 Whether near or far-off, the future is a popular setting for speculative visions, although other settings–the past, other planets, alternate realities–can also demonstrate how the putatively natural structures of the world with which we are familiar are often historically contingent conventions. For example, if hierarchical thinking is at least partly a result of our experience with gravity, what might happen if we left Earth for weightless and directionless outer space?8 This example suggests why Carl Freedman sees science fiction itself as a kind of critical theory.9 To “speculate” also means to take risks in order to make a profit, which prompts questions about who benefits from thinking so much about the future, or as Barbara Christian put it to black feminist scholars, “What do we think we’re doing anyway?”10 In whose interest do we produce such work, and toward what ends? These are questions that scholars should ask of themselves, and answer.
To do so requires looking into not only the future, but also the past, to engage with history, that of our nation, our fields, and our profession. That history is often “spectral,” embedded in the present, neither dead nor past. Science fiction author Nalo Hopkinson has noted that representations of futuristic space travel are shaped by histories of colonialism and expansionism.11 Gene Roddenberry, for example, imagined the original version of television’s Star Trek series as “a wagon train to the stars.” Moreover, the way the future was imagined in the early 20th Century, in terms of architecture and fashion as well as technology, differs from more recent visions. The designs of the Chrysler building and the Hoover Dam summoned the future, but 21st-century hotels and diners invoke art deco stylings for purposes of postmodern nostalgia. The future is not what it used to be.
“Speculative” also approximates “spectacle,” which suggests Guy DeBord’s analyses of mass media and commodity fetishism. In the Trump era, “the society of the spectacle” takes on additional meanings as the President barrages the public with demagoguery, atrocious behaviors, and headline-grabbing tweets that at times appear to be weaponized, designed to distract and exhaust any opposition. But we might choose instead to focus on the plural noun form, “spectacles,” as in corrective lenses. Delany has famously called science fiction “a significant distortion of the present that sets up a rich and complex dialogue with . . . (the) here and now.”12 Speculative visions, therefore, function as commentary on current issues by way of indirection or allegory. These lenses are “corrective” in the sense that they are a key step in the process of socio-political change: imagining what change, for good or for ill, would look like. For this reason, utopias and dystopias, in (para)literature, film, television, or other media–e.g. Metropolis, 1984, The Hunger Games, The Handmaid’s Tale–are newly-popular speculative modes. In 1967, Lyman Tower Sargent identified “The Three Faces of Utopianism,” which included (along with literature and the history of intentional communities) “utopian thought or philosophy.”13 Since Sargent’s inauguration of this interdisciplinary field, therefore, Utopian Studies has consistently engaged with critical theory, including anti-utopian thought deployed against fascism and violence (Theodor Adorno, Karl Popper) as well as utopianisms such as Ernst Bloch’s The Principle of Hope (1954, 1955, 1959), a psychological and hermeneutic principle14 for confronting our species’ numerous and often self-made challenges in the present and the future. This principle enables analysis and activism; it informs a refusal to accept things as they are and a belief that things can be better. Its combination with other workings of the spirit–sympathy, creativity, and the critical thinking common to scholarship in the Humanities–is necessary if our highest ideals are to be realized. The demonstration of such faculties in these contributions to (In)Visible Culture, and the cultivation of such amongst its readers, contribute to making this issue truly spectacular.
- Tzvetan Todorov, The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1975). ↩
- Darko Suvin, The Metamorphoses of Science Fiction, (New Haven: Yale UP, 1979) vii. ↩
- Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey, The Comic Book History of Comics, (San Diego: IDW, 2012) 109. ↩
- Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics (Northampton, MA: Tundra, 1993)140. ↩
- Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1983) 205. ↩
- Samuel R. Delany, “The Para • doxa Interview,” 1995, Shorter Views (Hanover: Wesleyan UP, 1999) 205. ↩
- Samuel R. Delany, “Some Real Mothers . . . .” Silent Interviews (Hanover: Wesleyan UP, 1994) 169, 168. ↩
- Samuel R. Delany with Howard Chaykin, Empire (New York: Berkley, 1978) 2. ↩
- See Carl Freedman, Critical Theory and Science Fiction (Wesleyan, UP 2000). ↩
- Barbara Christian, “But What Do We Think We Are Doing Anyway: The State of Black Feminist Criticism(s) or My Version of a Little Bit of History,” 1989, Within the Circle: An Anthology of African American Literary Criticism from the Harlem Renaissance to the Present, ed. Angelynn Mitchell (Durham: Duke UP, 1994) 499. ↩
- Nalo Hopkinson, Introduction, So Long Been Dreaming: Postcolonial Science Fiction and Fantasy, ed. Nalo Hopkinson and Uppinder Mehan (Vancouver: Arsenal, 2004) 8. See also John Rieder’s Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction (Wesleyan UP, 2008). ↩
- Samuel R. Delany, “Dichtung und Science Fiction,” Starboard Wine (Pleasantville, NY: Dragon Press, 1984) 176 ↩
- Lyman Tower Sargent, “The Three Faces of Utopianism,” minnesota review 7.3 (1967): 222-230. ↩
- Carl Freedman, “Science Fiction and Utopia: A Historico-Philosophical Overview,” Learning from Other Worlds: Estrangement, Cognition, and the Politics of Science Fiction and Utopia, ed. Patrick Parrinder (Durham: Duke UP, 2001) 72-97. ↩